What does it really mean to be a career executive assistant?

There are misconceptions about the EA role, sometimes fueled by images in popular TV shows. You might see an EA appear to fetch coffees and light cigars (hello, Mad Men!), but the reality is an EA isn’t a stereotypical secretary-type role, it’s the role of a skilled and committed professional.

Yes, the role of executive assistant is a career path. In fact, it can take top EAs all over the world, into Fortune 500 companies or over to some of the most innovative startups. EAs are valued for their wide range of knowledge and experience, and are often asked for their perspectives on business initiatives.

Here’s what it means to be a career executive assistant:

EAs are more than “an assistant”

A career executive assistant has skills that are more advanced than your average assistant. A huge difference is that assistants tend to be very task-focused. They spend their days going through a list of very specific tasks that they have been assigned - they don’t tend to take a more directive role.

An executive assistant, on the other hand, often takes more of a project management role. They are less task-focused and more dedicated to the big picture. They also don’t tend to require as much direction - they take ideas and run with them, figuring out the details and who they need to get involved.

To give an example, let’s say there is a big meeting coming up for an important project. A regular assistant might print materials for the meeting that they have been given. An executive assistant is more likely to take a hands-on role, preparing the materials, inviting the right people, distributing information AND making sure materials get printed.

An executive assistant will also often have a more active role in executive meetings and decision-making. Many experienced EAs are asked for their input. They attend meetings, take notes and create action items, making sure the right people are assigned to tasks. They are proactive about ensuring the company has good systems and processes so that tasks can be streamlined and goals can be met.

Executive assistants have huge variety in what they do, but one key point of difference from other assistant roles is that they tend to act as a gatekeeper for the company and the executive/s they serve. They are sounding boards for their executives, helping them through their decisions and, if the work involves travel, there are many EAs who travel with their executives.

In many cases, executive assistants are so invaluable to their managers that “ask my EA” is the first answer to any question. The EA keeps tabs on every part of their work, including their schedule and is familiar with how they think and make decisions. They’re often relied upon to remember key details and to answer questions for others.

An executive assistant is a true, professional career role CLICK TO TWEET

Does a college degree matter for an EA?

Most executive assistants do have college degrees, often in a business discipline. People often ask where an EA got their college degree, but it’s important to remember that you’re not taught how to be a good EA in schools.

It’s real experience that makes the difference, so you’ll sometimes find that a top EA didn’t start out with a degree, however they worked their way into the role and probably picked up some qualifications along the way. For example, they may have started in a more administrative assistant role, but picked up extra responsibilities and learned on the job.

When it comes to how and why an executive makes a business decision and what EAs can best do to support them, that’s something that is generally learned at work, rather than taught in a classroom. Every executive is different and there is huge variation in how people think and the preferences they have - there’s no template to follow that says “this EA knows exactly how to support every executive.”

In fact, with that in mind, part of our service here at Worxbee is to learn about your business and how you operate. We also work to understand each of our EAs, their skills, experience and personalities, then we endeavor to make a great match between executive and executive assistant. While college degrees can play a role in desired knowledge for the job, essentially, it’s still experience that is the most critical factor in finding a good EA, along with work habits and style.

How much responsibility can career EAs take on?

One thing to remember is that anyone who opts to go into a career as an executive assistant probably isn’t looking for a “number one” or management role. They enjoy their supporting role and generally want to be “number two.” That means if what you really need is someone in a number one role, then you need to hire for that role and the position shouldn’t be “executive assistant.” If you need a specific skill set, it’s important to hire for that rather than try to shoehorn an executive assistant into the role.

In saying that, executive assistants do take on more responsibility than typical administrative assistants. For example, many EAs find themselves asked to head up new internal committees or initiatives. These can often be described as “we know someone needs to be in charge of this, but it doesn’t really fall under any particular job role.” For example, office social events or workplace cultural committees. In job descriptions this is often described as “taking the strategic lead on initiatives important to company culture.”

EAs also tend to be the “unofficial” source of all information for people in the company. Knowing what’s happening in the business is their business and they’ll often be a helpful source of information, but it’s not necessarily their responsibility to know it all.

Another part of their role might be described as “providing strategic counsel.” Executive assistants often find themselves being asked for their views, whether specifically work-related or not. They act as a sounding board and can also research information to support decision-making, but they’re not there to make any final key decisions.

What can someone interested in being a career EA expect?

The executive assistant role often has so much variety attached that it’s difficult to paint a specific picture. Anyone who goes into the EA role as a career can expect that they need to be big-picture thinkers, as well as prepared to be on top of the small details. It’s a combination of understanding and being part of strategy, along with knowing the details that need to be sorted out to support the strategy.

Executive assistants usually: take charge of scheduling and calendars, arrange travel and itineraries, help with customer service or special customer “treatment,” troubleshoot IT for their executive, design and implement processes and procedures, act as a sounding board, plan and organize events or meetings, and help to ensure that tasks are done by those they are assigned to.

It’s a highly variable role and EAs might find themselves doing all of those things, or a strategic handful. It very much depends on the executive that they work with.

Final thoughts

What does it mean to be a career executive assistant? Overall, it means being at the top of their game professionally, an uber-organizer, and a highly trusted confidante.

For some EAs, that will mean staying with one executive for as long as possible, and many do take this route. For others, that might mean aspiring to working for bigger organizations. For example, several of our Worxbee EAs have come from Fortune 500 companies.

There’s a company culture and overall way of doing business to suit most aspiring executive assistants. Through Worxbee, we may be able to connect you with the right fit. Get in touch with us today to see if we can work with you.